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From Idealism to Impact

Thursday, April 30, 2015

As part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series, three leading social innovators shared their stories and their best advice for those who want to change the world.

Kirsten Lodal, Michael Brown, and Abby Falik at Tisch College panel on social innovation

On April 21, Tisch College hosted a Forum on Social Innovation featuring three of the nation’s most accomplished social entrepreneurs: Michael Brown, CEO and Co-Founder of City Year; Abby Falik, CEO and Founder of Global Citizen Year; and Kirsten Lodal, CEO and Co-Founder of LIFT.

The event was part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series, which has brought to campus leaders and public figures ranging from Senator Elizabeth Warren to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, in order to engage the Tufts community in thought-provoking conversations about vital issues.

Brown, Falik, and Lodal came to the stage, where they were interviewed by Tisch College Dean Alan Solomont before taking questions from the audience, united by a great deal of respect for one another’s work and by another special bond: all three of their organizations will serve as placements for the inaugural year of our Tufts 1+4 Brige-Year Service Learning Program.

Three Powerful Ideas

All three entrepreneurs, it turns out, also shared similar stories about how their organizations got started: each the product of an idea that lit up their imagination and compelled them to act.

Falik spoke about her childhood traveling with her parents, who had wanted to expose her to the world, and of remembering meeting children her age living in wildly different circumstances.

“It’s very clear that it was those early experiences that exposed a nerve that I could never ignore,” she said. “Everything I have studied and pursued both professionally and academically, has been oriented toward this question of what it would look like, in this country, to ensure that many more—and more diverse—young people had direct, immersive experiences in other parts of the world as a way of informing their sense of who they are and who they can become.”

Global Citizen Year has done just that, providing transformational experiences to more than 350 youth through bridge years in countries like Ecuador, Senegal, and Brazil, the latter of which will host Tufts 1+4 Fellows starting this fall.

For Michael Brown, City Year rose from the idea of national service, which he first encountered while serving as an aide to then-Congressman Leon Panetta in the early ‘80s. If volunteer service became the norm, he thought, “it could be a multibillion dollar service resource, that could even help complete the civil rights movement by uniting people of all backgrounds for a shared generational experience.” He concluded: “this could institutionalize idealism.”

City Year became a civilian service corps that sent volunteers to organizations throughout the country before deciding to focus exclusively on one problem: the high-school dropout rate, which more than 30,000 CityYear corps members have helped reduce through millions of hours of service in cities across the nation.

For Kirsten Lodal, the “a-ha” moment came when, during her own bridge year working as a Head Start teacher, she began accompanying struggling mothers—some of them homeless despite working multiple jobs—to appointments at social service agencies where they were given neither the attention nor respect they deserved.

“I saw the treatment they often endured within our ‘helping’ system as a society; what it felt like to sit in a food stamps office and to feel like you’re a pariah of society,” saidLodal. She would later start LIFT, which pairs a low-income individuals with an advocates who help them climb out of poverty, with a people-centric model that holistically considered each person’s specific needs.

Youthful Idealism

It may be no coincidence that all three entrepreneurs started their organizations as young men or women when, they’re the first to admit, they didn’t know any better.

“In a lot of ways, to get an idea off the ground you have to have that brazen entrepreneurial zeal, some mix of naïveté, and just passion.”

“It’s some combination of innocence and arrogance that says that you can go do this, and thank goodness we didn’t know the things that we didn’t know,” said Brown. “But we just felt compelled, literally compelled, to go to work on this idea.”

Brown added that this idealism helped sustain City Year through its early, uncertain time—one that lasted quite a while. “For the first ten years, we didn’t know where April’s money was coming from in January.”

He believes it’s the same for many social ventures. “It takes probably three years to get something off the ground, ten years to make it stable enough to be institutionalized, and we’re still figuring out how many years it takes it to get it to its full potential. And at every single stage there are huge hurdles,” said Brown.

Falik concurred. “It’s about carrying a vision and knowing where you are headed, but being patient in getting there,” she said.

For her part, Lodal spoke about how even growth and success can hold huge challenges.

“We’ve tripled the size of our staff and our revenue, and we’re dealing with a lot of growing pains,” she said of LIFT. “How do you experience that type of growth on top of systems that have gotten you here, but aren’t going to get you there?”

Lodal advised future social entrepreneurs to be clear-eyed about their ventures and the difficult decisions it may take to strengthen them, adding that LIFT went through a cycle of overextension, contraction, and retrenchment before emerging on more solid ground.

A Piece of Advice

In addition to the insights the audience could surely glean from Brown, Falik, and Lodals’ personal stories and that of their organizations, each innovator also shared other bits of advice to aspiring social entrepreneurs.

Lodal suggested that students take advantage of their time in college, which is a natural incubator for inspirational ideas, and a place where the entrepreneurial spirit can meld with political activism, social movements, and other avenues for change.

Brown emphasized the latter point, saying bluntly: “Service and social entrepreneurship is not a substitute for politics. It’s not.” He added that social entrepreneurship should be tied to strong political action, particularly since many of the most effective and innovative ventures can only be substantially scaled through public investment.

Finally, Falik called on students to honestly assess how they might best have an impact on the world—even if it’s not through social entrepreneurship at all.

“I think there are too many idealistic college students wanting to start new social enterprises because it sounds sexy … without pausing to reflect on: Has this been tried? Does it need an innovative solution? Am I the right person to do it? Is this the role that I should play?

“Learn your strengths. Discover whether you are meant to be an entrepreneur or an ‘intrepreneur;’ or a COO, an internal leader, or somebody who does fundraising. There are so many roles to play in creating social change,” she said.